Saturday, May 24, 2008

Towards a Theology of Work

Have you ever wanted to quit your job to join a paid sleep study? I didn't want to today, when I walked to work, and I was smiling like a fool because the rolls of new grass smelled so earthy and good under a blue sky. I don't want to when we read from the Psalter in staff prayer, and I don't want to when someone is encouraged just because of my peripheral role in something that thrills the heart of God.

But I confess that I have wanted to call that sleep study hotline, when the city is dark except for my cubicle. I have wanted to when I have seriously considered taking a nap on my keyboard. I have wanted to when my computer blinks at me with the blue screen of death, looking quite innocent about having just sucked my analysis into the black hole where lost data goes.

Most of the time, it is not hard for me to like work. That is a predisposition, not a virtue. I just get antsy without something to put my hands to. And if I do something, it might as well be well done.

Because work came easily, I did not for a long time giving more than passing consideration to what God has to say about work. But he says quite a bit. In Proverbs, there are dire warnings about sluggards going hungry. The New Testament says to work as unto the Lord. And my elementary school took as its motto that part about "studying to show thyself approved, a workman who need not be ashamed of his labor." That only scratches the surface, of course.

But sometimes my work hangs on me like a sack of paving stones. Then, all I want is to have it lifted from me. I want to retire. I forget that at age 23 and with loan debt, this is not a feasible option. I long for heaven, not because of the presence of my Lord there, but because of the total absence of spreadsheets. And since neither the Grim Reaper nor the Publishers' Sweepstakes has come to my rescue, I turn at last towards this topic of a theology of work.

A theology of anything is a tricky enterprise. The chief danger is that we shall seek knowledge instead of Jesus, and set up for ourselves a sacrosanct opinion that is as much an idol as any golden calf. That's why this blog is called "Towards a Theology of Work." I don't intend to answer the question of what a proper understanding of work is. I only want to come a bit closer to seeing it as God does, and I think it can be done by examining some of the most popular ways for thinking about work in light of Scripture.

Myth#1: Work is not part of God's original plan. It is God's punishment of man for the Fall. When God redeems the world, work will no longer be part of the picture.

Yes and no. In Genesis, we do read that God told gave Adam work to do long before the Fall. He named animals and acted as a sort of general superintendent. He had responsibilities to fulfill. That is the core of work. It was after the Fall that Adam's work became bitter to him. While in the garden he performed his work without strain, but in the exile of the wilderness, he had to wring his bread from an earth grown suddenly truculent. With the Fall, bitterness and futility entered our understanding of work, but work has been there all along. Not only did Adam work, but God did. God labored over His creation for six days. If God labored, we must be open to the possibility that work can be entirely holy and joyful, forever. And if we shall be like Him when we see Him, as Paul says, than perhaps heaven shall be a busier place that we are sometimes inclined to think.

Myth #2: Work is the highest end of man of earth.

There is something called a "Puritan work ethic." If someone is said to have it, you will hear murmurs of admiration. The Puritans, being strict adherents to Calvinism, thought that earthly prosperity was a sign of their election, so they put their hands to the plow and not only did not turn back, but did their furrows double-time. Their modern inheritors might be the doctors or CEOs or district attorneys who put in 18-hour work days with righteous zeal.

"I love my work. It's my life."

Is that wrong to say such a thing? Suppose they are unmarried, and so have not even the usual filial guilt to curtail their hours? Work, after all, is extolled in Scripture. It is beneficial to society, gives us purpose and security. It prevents idleness, which (don't you know?) is the Devil's playground. And doesn't Scripture say to work as unto the Lord? Doesn't that mean giving everything you have? Dropping in the harness?

But let us stop. Is that truly God's will for us? To burn the candle of our energies until it flickers and dies in martyred service?

Scripture says no. "The Lord gives rest to His beloved," says the Psalmist. And God roars with indignation against the breaking of the Sabbath, the inheritance of holy rest set aside for His people for all generations.

I will venture this much: Any adequate theology of work must incorporate a theology of rest. Work, as the gift of God, can be a wholly joyful and holy undertaking, but rest is equally so. Rest is a celebration of divine sovereignty and splendor. Rest says, "I can take my hands from the rudder, because God's hand is upon it still." Rest says, "My God is good, and all His works are marvelous. Let me soak it in."

What can all this mean to me in my cubicle? I'm still figuring it out. I expect I shall always be figuring it out. But again I will venture this much: When Jesus came, He proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God. It started with him. Did he work hard? Ever so. Did he rest? During a storm. Is it possible for me? His resurrection promises me that, though I am always a work in progress, contending with my flock of fears and vices, His reality shall ever more become my reality. My ways of working and resting, properly surrendered, shall bear an increasing resemblance to His.

And to this I say, "Thy kingdom come."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Silence of Satiety

Cooking is high on the list of things that make me happy. Cooking means loving people well by giving them something that they both need and will give them pleasure. Cooking means creativity and challenge. Cooking means taking odds and ends and, by combination, making something surprising and delightful. Cooking, at its best, is an act not only of nurture and comfort, but of redemption.

Cooking also means dirty dishes, but I try not think about that until after dinner, and occasionally not until after breakfast.

I have my older sister, who is closer to culinary sainthood than I shall ever be, and who by her own telling at least partially ensnared her husband with a piece of blueberry pie, for first making me think about food in a way that is similar to how I think about words. A subject requiring precision, perseverance, and a sense of humor. In the end, an offering to those I love.

There is also in cooking that note of obscurity that I always find attractive. To be honest, one of my favorite things about baking bread from scratch is that I'm expected to buy it in a store. That, and I like to do things the hard way; it makes the end results much more fun. I'm not-so-secretly delighted if my Ethiopian recipe has me picking through unmarked bags of spices in a dimly lit shop in DC's Little Addis Ababa neighborhood.

My little apartment kitchen sometimes makes me sad. It's more like a galley than a kitchen. The dishwasher has never worked, and a single dish out of place qualifies as a huge mess for simple want of space. Sometimes I think with envy of the grand designer kitchens in the houses where both my mom and dad have worked, kitchens that would make Julia Child weep for joy, and that yet always gleamed with the telltale cleanliness of disuse.

But my own plastic countertops and jam-packed cupboards have not stopped me from squeezing my own orange juice, nor does the fact that my dining room table seats four keep me from inviting a dozen. When people come to eat, I pull out every thing that can possibly be sat upon, and some people go into the living room, balancing glasses on their knees and trying not to spill ragu sauce on the couch, as though that poor old three-legged Craigslist couch could possibly be spoiled. Conversation stops. People who were hungry are satisfied and cared for. This is why I love to cook: the silence of satiety that falls upon such gatherings. And though cooking by itself is fun, this is the part the makes me happy. I wouldn't trade a minute of it, not for a butcher block countertop or my own fleet of Kitchenaid mixers, not unless the same faces were around my table.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Tough to Reconcile

Tough to Reconcile

***Laura Waters Hinson is a member of my church, Church of the Resurrection. She was kind enough to grant me an interview so that I could write an article for my workshop.***

"By nature, I'm a skeptic," says D.C. filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson. That inborn skepticism is a clear asset to her new documentary, "As We Forgive," a film treading the heavily mined topic of social reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda, where questions abound, answers break your heart, and the stakes are unbearably high.

In Rwanda, a rolling emerald country south of Uganda, the people speak Kinyarwanda, and oftentimes French, with an accent that drains it of its snobbery. Among its largely rural and contemplative people, coffee grows on the hills and churches stand in the villages. In April 1994, the plane of the president of Rwanda was shot down, and the extremist Hutu government blamed the Tutsis, an ethnic minority that had been broadly favored by Belgian colonialists. "Stamp out the Tutsi cockroaches!" became the government's official credo, and mobs of Hutu extremists, called Interahamwe, went out into all Rwanda bearing machetes, clubs, and death lists inscribed with the names of their next-door neighbors.

In 100 days, the Interahamwe killed approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. HIV-positive soldiers were hand-selected to rape Tutsi girls. A pastor bull-dozed a church over the huddled bodies of his parishioners. By the hundreds, bloated bodies floated like pontoon boats down the rapids into Lake Kivu. The massacre ended only when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an army of Tutsis who had been exiled into neighboring African countries, invaded from the north and captured Kigali, the capital city. Over one hundred thousand murderers were jammed into crowded prisons, and those who were left began to bury the bodies.

As its full horror was revealed, the Rwandan genocide became shorthand for the failures of the international community. The killings had gone on in full view of the watchful though disbelieving eyes of the United Nations and its member states, who quibbled over using the word "genocide," with all the untidy legal responsibilities it would entail. In the aftermath, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton made a humbly worded apology to the people of Rwanda.

In 2005, when Hinson first traveled to Rwanda as a muzungu - meaning “foreigner” or “wealthy person,” since the terms are interchangeable in Rwanda - she might have expected to find resentment. Instead, she found that Rwandans had far more to deal with than the abandonment of the international community.

Hinson learned that new Rwandan President Paul Kagame, faced with bursting prisons and a 150-year court backlog of untried murderers, had implemented a conditional prisoner release program for participants in the genocide. “Common” killers, who had not been ringleaders but were swept into the genocidal fury, could walk free if they had confessed their crimes and had already served a certain minimum sentence. Many took the opportunity, and to date there are 50,000 ex-genocidaires walking the lovely red dirt roads of Rwanda. They live in houses next to people with machete scars.

The story only got more unbelievable. Some of the genocidaires, Hinson heard, were asking forgiveness from the survivors. And here and there, survivors were giving it.

Hinson thought, "This is the best idea for a documentary I've ever heard." She traveled to Rwanda for shooting in the summer of 2006. The stories she filmed, woven together in of "As We Forgive" tell of communities attempting, in their own ways, to heal the wounds of genocide. For a startling and growing minority, the curative of choice is forgiveness and reconciliation, but it doesn't come cheaply for anyone.

Hinson landed in Kigali with a shoestring budget, a student crew, and no one to interview, but she was determined to capture the drama or forgiveness and reconciliation unfolding on film. With the help of a skilled and well-connected translator, she began to make headway. She soon learned that through Prison Fellowship Rwanda's Umuvumu Tree Project, ex-genocidaires who wanted to show their remorse were building houses for survivors. She met Rosaria, whose sister and nieces and nephews were bludgeoned to death by a man named Saveri. Rosaria and Saveri had taken part in a community reconciliation workshop, and she had publicly forgiven him for his crimes. Today, she lives in a house that Saveri helped to build for her.

The story of Rosaria's forgiveness, which comes across as a complex melding of faith and social values, made it into the documentary; Hinson, however, with her natural sense for ambiguity, wanted to film a story of forgiveness in progress, a story that would lay bare the ponderous dynamics of brutality, shame, and pardon among people who must somehow live together.

She spoke to a worker for CARSA, an organization that runs reconciliation workshops for survivors and ex-prisoners. The worker told her about Chantale and John. Chantale was a genocide survivor. John murdered Chantale's father. After fourteen years in prison, he heard Kagame's startling announcement on a transistor radio. He was released. He wanted to see Chantale and beg her forgiveness.

After days of reluctance, Chantale agreed to meet with John and the reconciliation worker while cameras were rolling. "It was like the cameras weren't even there," Hinson marveled. "Rwandans are a stoic people, normally, but she just came unraveled on film."

In the documentary's climactic scene, John keeps his eyes riveted to a tile on the floor, while he tells Chantale that he did an evil thing, and then says over and over again, "Have mercy."

Chantale cannot look at him. She doesn't listen, either, as she spills out the accusatory monologue of her despair.

The reconciliation worker steps in, "Every time you look at him, you see your father. Every time he looks at you, he sees the blood. That is the problem."

Chantale leaves, unable to forgive that day. The ongoing struggle to do so is at the heart of the film, which, far from a panacea, looks unflinchingly at the irreducible complexities of human relationships strained to the utmost: of churches, complicit in the genocide, spearheading the road to recovery; of killers released from the bars of jail to meet the barriers of survivors' contempt; of the depth of feeling that lets some Rwandans feel they must forgive, and others to feel they cannot.

Reactions to the project have been mixed. Rwandans are overtly enthusiastic. President Paul Kagame even granted Hinson an interview and fed her film crew lunch off of gold-rimmed presidential china. From small to great, Rwandans are excited at the prospect of the greater world hearing stories that go beyond Hotel Rwanda. Others are wary. Actress Mia Farrow, who lent her voice to narrate the film, expressed concerns, not uncommon, about placing too great a burden on survivors to forgive the perpetrators of genocide.

Even after the hundreds of hours she's spent producing the film, Hinson hasn't found an answer to what she'd do in Rosaria or Chantale's place. She's newly married, and she can't conceive what she'd do if her husband was murdered and the government set the killer free. Could she forgive? Hard to say. But the survivors are being asked to do even more than forgive. They're being asked to reconcile. "Forgiveness asks you to give up your right to be angry," says Hinson, "Reconciliation asks something much greater. It asks you to enter back into relationship with the people you've forgiven. That's what the Rwandans are doing, and it's astonishing."

Bearing witness to such an astonishing process seems to have made a believer from the skeptic. She's working with a lawyer to establish the As We Forgive Foundation to support the work of reconciliation in Rwanda, and she hopes to show the film around Rwanda and other former conflict zones to demonstrate that forgiveness and reconciliation, though gut-wrenching and slow, are not impossible. For viewers of the film, as for its maker, "As We Forgive" has the potential to be a transformative journey.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Notes from the Road


I have discovered how to become a famous writer. The answer is to immediately stop censoring myself or imposing any kind of purpose or organizational structure on my blogs. Alexis de Tocqueville, famous French observer of 19th century America, wrote Democracy in America, on of the single most comprehensive and unreadable volumes in any language, and he has been avidly quoted by politicians and academics of every ideological strip ever since. A good Tocqueville quote is indispensible, whether you're opining on behalf of Marxism, neoconservatism, or baseball. He has achieved literary immortality. But why?

The purpose of quoting someone else, of course, is to hide your own non-sequiters using the words of someone rendered irrefutable by death, fame, or both. Tocqueville is so eminently quotable simply because 1) He is dead, and 2) he could offer a vaguely educated opinion on virtually every subject, and he expressed them all with the grandiosity of an age when all novel ideas also seemed plausible.

My own plan is equally simple. I shall be Tocquevillianly grandiose, vague, and unfocused. Then (at some point in the passage of time), I plan to die, and whoever of you outlasts me can feel free to quote me.


I don't think I'd ever ridden in a taxi before my eighteenth birthday, but since I moved out of the suburbs, it happens often. This delights me to no end, because I've found cab drivers to be infallibly interesting. I'm on my way to Seattle at the time of this writing, and the cab driver who took Lana, Connie and I to Reagan Airport was a remarkable specimen.

His name was Modesto Bardino Bretas, or so proclaimed the cab driver's license mounted above the dash. It sounded vaguely Mediterranean. He had the American and Israeli flags tucked behind the sun visor on the passenger side, and the cross hanging from his rearview mirror was of the design you see in Ethiopian souvenir stores.

"Where do you want to go?" he said, and the turned on the radio. It was a waltz. By Strauss.

We arrived at the airport - for the second time that day. Our earlier flight had been cancelled, and we whiled away the time by watching a parade of WWII veterans at the airport. They deplaned with wheelchairs and walkers, while a brass band brought in by U.S. Airways played martial music. After that, we took a cab back to the office, and we piled into Connie's German car. She turned on her West African gospel mix, and we drove to a Lebanese restaurant on Pentagon Row in a small square that also boasted Thai food, Mexican, a noodle shop, an Irish pub, and a French creperie. Connie decided, however, between drafting e-mails at the outdoor table, to be pretend we were in Santorini.

Our second effort at leaving Washington was, thankfully, less eventful than the first, unless you count the glorious absurdity of TSA security. On this day, it involved stepping into a machine that blows puffs of air at you (it always makes me giggle), and a nine-year-old girl in a red flowered sun dress being "randomly selected" for additional screening, though that's nothing to my friend's baby, who at birth somehow wound up on the "No Fly List" and endured frisking while still in diapers.


There's a ridiculous profusion of McCain, Clinton, and Obama memorabilia in the airport shops. It's getting old. The general consensus in the capital is that everyone wishes it were over - and we're still nine months away from inauguration day! I was an enthusiastic participant in the Potomac Primaries, but I'm also rather sick of the whole thing. The longer I have to reflect, the more I become convinced that anyone who would volunteer for the nation's highest office must be out of their minds. They'd have to be, to consent to have their faces (looking ever so competent and poised) placed on a sweatshirt in the duty-free shop. And the suspicion, which seems ever more warranted, that I shall have to choose between two slightly nutty candidates with whom I disagree at least half the time in both principle and policy, just takes the zest out of performing my civic duty. Will I vote? Of course, but I'll pray even more.


Safely at our gate, I began to write, since I had long since lost Lana to a biography of Ted Bundy, and Connie to the stoic endurance of a germ-filled public place like an airport, an environment not much loved by her fastidious nature.


I'm partway through a novel by Thornton Wilder. He has a lyrical, almost liturgical prose style that reminds me of the King James Version of the Bible. If I'm overdoing it on the adjectives today, you know why. I've always been a terrible pushabout when it comes to my writing style. I'm a mimic. I seem doomed to channel whomever I've most recently read. I still carry the scars of an ill-advised obsession with Dickens in elementary school. I've often wondered if any of my style is my own. It must be, to some degree, but mostly I think I'm a shameless borrower, and whatever knack I have for language stems from a simple fact: I have a sufficiently indifferent opinion of reality to read three books a week since I my alphabet.

I can hardly imagine a world without books. When I was a child, if asked, "Would you rather be deaf or blind?" (I don't know why children ask each other such morbid hypothetical questions), I always said, "Deaf." Even if I lost my hearing, I would still have my books.

"Story" is the paradigm through which I view my world. I mark off my life into chapters, themes, and motifs. I understand people as heros and foils, though I've had the good fortune to know few enough villains.

Because of that, one of Scripture's most profound statements for me is that God is the author of faith. The one word - author - resolves the sovereignty vs. free will debate for me. An author, you see, has total control over his creation, but at the same time he is not arbitrary. He actions are bound by rules - such as grammar, spelling, chronology, and even the internal consistency of his own plot and characters -- to which he freely submits himself in order to tell a good, clear story. So God, in "writing" our faith, is both fully responsible for the outcome, yet constantly checks himself, enabling us to make choices, so that he does not contradict the laws of love which he both invented and obeys.


For a person who flies as often as I do, I find it terribly exhausting and boring. At least I can be grateful that I am not afraid of flying. Some one my friends are, and I think I would spend half my life in a catatonic state if I partook of their phobia.

I have little use for fear of things I cannot control, and I am frustrated by people who allow fear to dictate their outlook or actions, or even worse, for those who try to instill their fears in me. Of course, I have my own skeletons in the fear closet, enough to render me a hypocrite, but I give myself a good scolding if I find that fear's been at the root of some action of mine. I don't remember always having such strong feeling about fear and its proper place; if anything, it's been a recent development. I think I hit the point in my life where fear stopped being worth it. The things you fear have a way of never happening. It's the things you never bothered to fear that will get at you.


We landed in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's always bemused me that I would have to fly several hundred miles south in order to go north and west, but mere mortals ought not to question such things. Anyway, the bathroom more than made up for it by offering a Listerine dispenser and homegrown roses set out in empty Tropicana orange juice bottle. In some respects, loving the south is a moral imperative.


I always wonder what the inside of other people's minds are like. I wonder if, like my own, they are endless ping-pong games, sometimes well-ordered, but sometimes an erratic, white-noise stream of consciousness that hardly ever abates except in prayer or sleep. When I'm extra tired, it goes on, but often in my second of third language, or a hybrid of the two.

This is a large part of why I write and why I read: to impose a brief silence on my mind. This is also why I lose things and why I forget vital details when I most need to remember them: because I am so enchanted with some digression (of which the above are a sampling of a single day's fare) that I fail to pay attention.

I once tried to describe the interior of my mind to a friend of the family. I tried to tell how I sometimes wish I could just think less.

"Yeah," he said meditatively, "That's why some people take drugs."


Laurie, the fourth member of the banquet squad, managed to get on an earlier flight that we did, but she was sentenced to an eight-hour layover in Dallas. Her in-laws came and bailed her out.

I, for one, would be content to do all my airport time in Charlotte. To add to the numerous perfections of its ladies' restrooms, there are hundreds of white, high-backed rocking chairs just waiting to be sat in. I consider rocking chairs to be the sine qua non of creature comfort. My greatest (easily attainable) goal in life is to live in a house with a wrap-around porch and rocking chairs. In fact, you can keep the house. Just give me the porch and the rocking chairs.


While waiting for our flight to take off, we quizzed Lana about her Bundy biography. Lana is interested in psychology and therefore fascinated by serial killers. She said the Bundy seemed like a really nice, normal, high-achieving guy . . . until he started killing people. The dozens of people he dispatched with were all pretty, young women in the Seattle area. As three pretty, young women, with active imaginations, bound at that moment for downtown Seattle, it was only a small consolation to know Bundy is no longer on the loose.